Slowdive-Slowdive: Album Review

The story behind Slowdive’s comeback album is a bit too perfect.  All too often, comeback albums are a product of some combination of a popular middle-aged band needing retirement funds, labels at a loss for sales with young folks, and the human condition’s constant desperation for the past.  The formerly critically-shunned shoegazers missed all of that.

Slowdive didn’t receive some big check to write these songs—they didn’t even think about record labels until the album was finished.  Also, the way they were jerked in and out of fame in their short six-year career didn’t have them thinking too nostalgically.  Throw in Beach House’s Chris Cody on the mixing stage and you’ve got an album that’s easy to write about.

Still, all these factors are truly audible.  The band’s freshness is remarkable, perhaps a product of the Beach House interplay. This is not a group reaching backwards, it’s an honest crew of songwriters doing what they’ve always done.  It’s a logical move from Pygmalion, pushing all of that sonic exploration at a bit of a faster clip, with some slightly more digestible lyrics.  Like My Bloody Valentine’s 2013 offering, it’s a testament to the importance of Shoegaze and it achieves that distinction by simply delivering honest material from beginning to end.

“Star Roving” makes a great single that shows the warmer side of the project.  It thrives on a single guitar lick that punches like all hell with classic Slowdive vocal delivery and a typically rich sonic pool surrounding it all.  Neil and Rachel’s chemistry is as good as ever as lyrics effortlessly nail young love: “Smiling beautiful/She says I make it best/For everyone to hide/Twisting around my girl/Nothing left to lose.”  The song takes a moment to breathe with “oohs” between phrases and every time that guitar revamps, the goosebumps return.

The band emulates this warmth elsewhere, such as the instrumentally driven jam “Go Get it.”  A guitar opens with a spilling delay effect on the simple, descending melody.  The rather giant snare sound helps drive things as the chorus roars “I WANNA FEEL IT.”  This song also brings the group’s lyrical talents into play.  Each song doesn’t so much hand the listener a slew of lyrics or an idea or narrative, rather the group’s words fall in and out of importance with phrases only used at just the right moment to enhance the sonic effect.

“Everyone Knows” presents the most obvious lyrical distortion as the words fall entirely secondary to the strumming acoustic guitar and driving mass of sound.  “Don’t Know Why” also uses lyrics a bit differently by abstracting some specific words, but here you get the gist of the mood and the words later become a bit more metaphorically delivered.

Rachel articulates the part of a break-up when you just don’t want to hear from your former partner: “Put it all behind you/Put it in a song/I don’t want to know about it.”  The lines spill over each other and gradually it all melds together like a frantic collection of thoughts.  The abstraction of words is just as important as the abstraction of typical guitar roles in shoegaze and the group epitomizes it on this record that achieves emotional impact with sparse ideas and turns of phrase.

The second single, “Sugar for the Pill” shows the album’s cooler side.  Admittedly, as a stand-alone track, the song comes across as extremely clean and straightforward, but it makes more sense in the middle of the album as it’s bookended by two instances of heavy lyrical abstraction.  Neil paints pictures with his words: “There’s a buzzard of gulls/They’re drumming in the wind/Only lovers alive/Running in the dark.” It’s cool and detached and expresses a certain darkness of moving on from something that once was.

The album ends in a similarly cool place with “Falling Ashes.”  Piano shows up out of nowhere and remains brooding throughout.  Lyrics seem to reference their former selves with words about being lost with the prospect of being pulled back to happiness: “thinking about love.”  It caps off the work nicely by not trying too hard to find blissful stability and instead continuing to face their demons.

As far as the future goes, the band might not have a huge amount of impactful material left in them and perhaps Pygmalion and Souvlaki will remain their most significant works, but their self-titled album shows a highly relevant and important group living up to their songwriting legacy.

-Donovan Burtan

8/10

The Uncoverables Podcast: Lauren Lee Interview

This week’s podcast is pulled from another episode of CKUT’s New Shit.  I speak to Lauren Lee about her Space Jazz Trio and their upcoming Montreal show at Cafe Resonance on May 20th.  Topics include songwriting strategies, influences, and some thoughts on the New York and Montreal jazz communities.

Click Here to Download

Playlist:

Kara-Lis Coverdale- “Grafts” from Grafts

Lauren Lee Space Jazz Trio- “Voyager” from The Consciousness Test

Jessica Moss- “Entire Populations Pt. 2” from Pools of Light

Erik Hove- “Fractured” from Polygon

 

Mount Eerie-A Crow Looked at Me: Album Review

“A Crow Looked at Me” is a glance at the stream of consciousness ramblings of Phil Elverum as he mourns the loss of his wife Genvieve Castree to cancer in July of 2016.  Besides the final song where Elverum makes eye contact with a crow, later hears his daughter talking about a crow in her dreams, and finally finds peace in the fact that the crow is the reincarnation of his wife, the album doesn’t dabble in a whole lot of symbolism or poetic devices, and the music consists of matching simplicity.  It’s a piece without answers or goals—it’s simply a man trying to find catharsis in speaking his day-to-day truth.

The phrase “death is real” underpins everything said on the work and Elverum specifically vocalizes it a handful of times.  He doesn’t necessarily try to push away the death of his wife, but he still needs to remind himself that this is all real with every turn of events.  In one instance, he speaks about wondering when his wife will be back, but then he remembers “death is real.”  There’s never really a moment of trying to find the best out of the situation or wondering off into some sort of philosophical point—Elverum is devastated and Genvieve is all he can think about.

Religiously, the work doesn’t make any references to specific systems of belief, but Elverum hits the core of what most people think about with death and passing on.  The most obvious example comes after his mention that his house is cold because he refuses to shut the window that he opened so his wife could breathe easier on her dying day.  Besides the obvious difficulty with closing the window and remembering that terrible day, Elverum adds the possibility that something may need to escape the room.  It’s light and quick and again we see how he doesn’t seem to have any answers about his loss.

Obviously, everything is dark, but Elverum also seems to stumble upon facts that give the album particularly impactful, depressing moments.  The opening track talks about a package addressed to his wife that came a week after her death.  It was a backpack, a gift for their daughter, and Elverum mentions that his wife was planning ahead for a future that she would not be involved in.  This again plays into the “death is real” line because even when his wife saw what was going to happen to her, she couldn’t even face it herself.

He later speaks about the counselor his wife and him were seeing and uses this to talk about the passage of time.  As his wife became weaker and weaker, he had to drive closer and closer to the entrance to the building so that she could make it.  Then, at the end of the tale, he mentions that the counselor herself passed right after his wife’s death, “as if her work was done.”  It’s a moment that you really can’t add any words to—it knocks the wind right out of your lungs.

As a whole, what makes the whole work beautiful is the fact that Elverum doesn’t try to do anything with the situation.  As he describes: “[death,] it’s not for singing about, it’s not for making into art, when real death enters the house all poetry is dumb.”  This is a man speaking about his tragedy, it’s not a man teaching how to do so.

-Donovan Burtan

8/10

 

 

Wiley-Godfather: Album Review

Someone slap me next time I review an album 4 months late. Wanted to catch up on the Godfather of Grime because I’ve loved the latest from Stormzy and Skepta so much as of late.

Wiley is almost like an El-P type figure in the UK Grime scene—around 15 years into his career, he’s still an underground road warrior with fierce, uncompromising productions and a take-no-prisoners attitude.  On Godfather, he uplifts the likes of the more popularly known Skepta and Stormzy—spitting out the line “Stormzy’s a don who’s here to break barriers” on opener “Birds and Bars.”  Elsewhere he establishes a bit of a mission statement: “Let me go and enjoy what I created.”

The album is a testament to his career.  He’s truly the Godfather of a genre and he remains one of the best in the game.  Admittedly, there’s a sense of simply meeting expectations and he doesn’t necessarily change up his sound a whole lot across the 16 tracks, but Godfather presents Grime in its purest form and never drops in energy or spirit.

Sonically, Wiley is still singular.  Single “Speakerbox” hits relentlessly hard with hollow, bouncing electronics and a mammoth percussive edge both in the wall of drums and the speedy rap flows: “if you look into my face, gonna see a boss.”  For most of the project, this remains the standard, with even more of a massive sound coming through on “Can’t Go Wrong;” a particularly vicious snarl dominating “On This;” and a one of the best melodies on the album showing up on the tongue-in-cheek ode to his laptop.

Wiley also seems to bring the best out of his features; each one respects his position in the scene and tries to bring their best foot forward to match-up to his skill. On “Bring Them All/Holy Grime” he trades off verses with Devlin—another long-standing road warrior—discussing the state of the genre today.  Posse cut “Name Brand” follows with JME and Wiley combining forces for one of the best hooks on the whole project and Skepta shows up for the melancholy “U Were Always Pt. 2.”  Wiley doesn’t overdo it with the features and he always finds a way to keep his voice central, but his ability to pass the mic when he needs to is a highly important aspect of the success of the work.

His sense of humor also shines continuously. “I still can’t work out why you would cause a big scene in Nando’s” he wonders as he casually takes shots at his S.O.  “Bait Face” is full of quick-witted one-liners like “when I get off the plane I’m still flying” and “I hit the road everyday like a cyclist.” Perhaps my personal favorite lyric comes on the opener: “all I need is…some fast food fizzy drink and an uber account.”  Although he expresses anxiety over the lack of money in the record labels he used to rely on here and there, Wiley still uses humor to ease the impact of his vocal power.

The album is a bit monochromatic.  Again, these songs are essentially all hard-hitting bangers and Wiley doesn’t dabble in sounds outside of the traditional grime pocket of sound.  Still, his creativity is relentless and, as he describes, “London’s changed a bit but [he] can still hit the booth, start spraying, and give the crowd fire.”

-Donovan Burtan

7.5/10

Valeda-Unearth: Album Review

I’m insanely late on this but I heard an interview with this artist on my beloved CKUT and I’ve been listening to the project quite a bit for a couple weeks.

Valeda is a solo electronic artist who is a part of susy.technology, a Montreal-based collective who—not unlike the great Kohlenstoff crew—are interested in multi-disciplinary artistic endeavors.  Their website specifies the “creation of audio-visual art engaging with the futurity of interactive media, cyberculture and augmented reality.”

Although Valeda is yet to release a music video, her music lends itself to immersive audio-visual experiments and her position in the collective is sure to lead to some great live experiences in the coming years.  On Unearth, she keeps her lyrics and sounds abstract and sparse, but also manages to offer an intimate, moving experience.

The album opens with cacophonous drones that remain constant as melodic sounds both gentle and violent grace the ear drums and frame Valeda’s quiet voice—the only source of brightness in the rather dark musical experience.  On the eight-minute opening track, for instance, pointed samples that sound like plucked strings are the first real “moment” before quick hits of ridged, high-pitched electronics and subdued quarter notes.

The world is bleak but active leading into the real entrance of Valeda’s voice around the half-way point.  Much less erratic, but sort of in the same melodic shape, her vocals model the high-pitched electronics of the beginning of the tune with quick ideas that eventually turn to full-fledged lyrical phrases: “never forget you.”  Her songwriting doesn’t lend itself to sing-able hooks and verses, however, the album is ridiculously enveloping and the excruciatingly gradual path to full lyrical ideas keeps you focused on every detail.

Perhaps the most impactful example of this lyrical strategy comes in the final tune, “Convent/Peril.”  Only four minutes long, the song mostly distorts its words with a mix of pitched-down, conflicting vocals, sound effects, and textural devices, before Valeda finally stands in the clear with the cutting line “my skin remembers what you can’t” around three minutes in.

The whole project has this tumultuous nature that alludes to trauma with the underlying sonic violence, but here is the most obvious allusion to past traumatic experiences and it really brings the work full circle.  Also, the use of the pitched-down vocals in the beginning of the song almost sounds like another person’s voice, invading in Valeda’s space so to speak.  Whether or not this exact interpretation was intended, the work offers a lot of room for multiple interpretations by keeping its themes cloudy, but also articulating specific bits and pieces.

Valeda’s middle two tracks are also great and the impeccable manipulation of space on each song carries over to the overall flow of the project.  “Under Ice” sort of reverses the approach to vocals in the first track by uttering the main lyrical idea first and continuously reinterpreting it throughout the track. It’s also the most rhythmically concise song, expanding on the rhythmic momentum of the first track with a stagnant beat from beginning to end.

“Losteling” is certainly the loudest song on the work, mostly by virtue of a single melodic strand of crackling sound that continuously inches up and down.  From the first track’s subdued beat to the more forward beat of the second, the third’s blasting melodic idea is quite logical and the brooding backdrop of the track helps along the seamless transition to pure force.

Unearth is emotionally moving and showcases a great deal of contrasting talents from Valeda without any real misfires.  I hope to hear more extensive, ambitious projects in the future, but 23 great minutes is a promising start.

-Donovan Burtan

8/10

Miwon-Jigsawtooth: Album Review

After a nine-year hiatus, the return of Berlin’s Miwon sees a sensible addition to his catalogue with more bright ambient landscapes and techno sensibilities.  True to the nature of N5MD records, the album continuously emphasizes melody with each 4-5 minute tune having a great deal of replay value while also expertly navigating open sonic terrain.

The album somewhat loses the rhythmic directness of 2008’s A to B and perhaps strikes a less emotionally moving tone.  Save the late-album dives into darkness, these songs are breezy and light. Still, the project keeps the listener engaged with spot-on songwriting with each passing track.

The beginning of the album serves as a decent representation of much of the project.  Opener “Fuzzy Words” builds swells above the active rhythmic foundation before the simple, but infectious melody comes in gently over the top.  This track doesn’t dig too deep as it sort of stagnates forward, but it works great as an introduction to Miwon’s particular aesthetic.

“Wolkengedoens” and “Shutter” are a bit more of the meat of the work.  Here, Miwon works in more drastic developments by continuously pilling on layers and emphasizing new melodic ideas. “Wolkengedoens,” for instance brings in a high synth melody towards the last 30 seconds of the tune to give a new splash of color that contrasts the slightly melancholy melodic centerpiece of the song.  “Shutter” is sluggish in tempo, opening the space for a blissful, wandering melody that gradually gets surrounded by more and more rhythmic activity, making for a natural, unpredictable development.

“Mondharke”—track 7—serves as the first full-fledged look at violence and darkness.  The crackling industrial sounds put the song on edge with pulsing low-end synths adding to the drama.  “Cool Your Jets” doesn’t necessarily read as violent, but it maintains the dark, smoldering nature of the previous track with an especially bouncy melody over brooding chords and low-end rhythmic sounds.

Although these two tracks contrast the sonic pallet of the beginning of the project, the exploration of this territory comes a bit late into the work.  Without these additions, the album would’ve been a bit one-dimensional, but it doesn’t feel all that well integrated into the project.  If Miwon had issued one of his more violent songs sooner into the track listing and then let that sound influence the tracks that followed the tug and pull between smoldering darkness and bright ambient sounds would’ve been more constant.

There’s no shortage of great songwriting and it’s great to hear a long-anticipated work that bites like “Jigsawtooth,” but it might have been a bit more impactful had Miwon dabbled into the violent, smoldering side of his sound aesthetic more often in the work.

-Donovan Burtan

7/10